Desma is excited about her 16th birthday party, which involves the whole class going to a movie at the local theatre. On top of that, she has the Empire scholarship, which only brings her closer to her dream of becoming an actuary. But things are beginning to change in Bermuda and when a progressive group decides to stage a theatre boycott that’ll threaten Desma’s birthday plan, she must come face to face with the racial tensions existent in her country.
There is a lot about Girlcott to love. For one, it explores a history that is not known to those outside of Bermuda: the theatre boycott that began desegregation in the country. It tackles the difficult topic of race and segregation through the eyes of a young, black, Bermudian girl, and does so with great nuance and understanding.
Desma is a believable and loveable character. She is only fifteen and is filled with hopes and dreams for her future. She doesn’t doubt her ability to become an actuary because her mentor, Mrs. Borrows, has given her the encouragement that she needed. And even when the white family whom she babysits for discourages her, telling her that black people can’t become actuaries, Desma doesn’t let this dissuade her. She is also naive – in the way that many teenagers can be. Her main concern with the theatre boycott is that her birthday plans are going to be cancelled, and she is even willing to sneak into the theatre during the boycott to prevent this from happening. It is only after she realises how the people nearest and dearest to her are involved in, and affected by, the boycott, that she begins to really think about what the boycott means.
I found Desma to be a brilliant character, specifically because of her naivety, optimism, and headstrong nature. Her character arc of going from naive about the boycott and racial segregation to learning to care about those affected, and coming up with an idea to participate in the boycott is admirable. The character arc not only feels believable of a young girl like Desma, but will also allow young teens to see themselves as activists, and not left out of the important movements and events that shape our histories.
However, the book lacked when it came to secondary characters. There was an attempt to develop them, but it often felt lackluster. We find out that Desma’s best friend, Eileen, has some struggles at home. But these are only presented superficially, and end up detracting from the core of the book, rather than adding to it.
More than that, Eileen’s struggles at home involve her older sister’s lack of sympathy for the rest of the family. Her sister is more interested in shopping and going out with her boyfriend than taking care of the rest of the family, or even going to school and furthering her education. As she seems to be set up as a contrast to Desma and her best friend, I found this quite problematic. The implication that women who don’t want to become actuaries like Desma, or are interested in typically ‘feminine’ things such as shopping or dating, are vapid and selfish is an age-old trope that continues to perpetuate misogynistic ideas.
There were other things in the book that didn’t feel fully developed as well. One of these was the romance between George and Desma – if that is what it can be called. We know that Desma has a crush on George, but this never goes further than her blushing every time he’s near. Yet, towards the climax of the book, Desma and George are holding hands, and it’s implied that they are starting a relationship – despite the fact that their relationship never really grows. We rarely see them interact, and we’re never told why Desma might like George.
Girlcott had a lot of ups and downs. Though I was interested in the main plotline, and was a fan of the protagonist, the book still left a lot to desire. The book followed a similar theme to Maddie & Sayara, another book that saw activism within kidlit. Girlcott tells of a far more realistic activism, that is entrenched in historical events. And while Florenz Webbe Maxwell’s attempt at writing about the historical theatre boycott is admirable,it was ultimately let down by underdeveloped secondary characters, secondary plotlines, and oftentimes clunky prose.